by Mary Harrington
Tuesday, 1
June 2021

Falling birth rates are not just a Chinese problem

Economic forces are disincentivising women from having babies everywhere
by Mary Harrington
Nursing students show baby care skills. Credit: Getty

The Chinese government has announced that every family may now have three children. This policy change responds to a cratering fertility rate and looming demographic crisis that isn’t confined to China, but replicated all over the developed world. 

China’s fertility rate in 2020 was 1.3 children per woman. This is worse than the 2020 US total fertility rate of 1.6, a figure much the same in the UK — and that was already falling before Covid struck

In the West, the collapsing birth rate is often attributed to ideology, in the form of selfish feminism. But while China does have a feminist movement, this emerged relatively recently and is rooted in the one-child policy, which redirected resources toward girls that would in traditional Chinese society have been reserved for their brothers. 

Along with this came ‘filial piety’, the traditional Confucian duty to support parents in old age. The upshot is a generation of women reluctant to have babies, especially when their prospective partners still see childcare as women’s job. 

So whereas we imagine feminism caused falling birthrates in the West, it resulted from falling birth rates in China. Perhaps, then, neither is strictly a cause-and-effect relationship. What both settings have in common is the material condition of technological advance and economic competition.

Technology replaces functions that were previously performed via laborious, cooperative effort; think of Liverpool’s thousands of dockers, now replaced by a handful of gantry operators (or even robots) in a container port. Or think of women hand-washing clothing, now replaced by an army of white goods. This is all good inasmuch as it takes back-breaking labour out of life, but drives social atomisation as a side-effect. 

Similarly, the push for ever greater economic competition fragments social units: this study showed how ‘filial piety’ is in growing tension with economic pressures that drive urbanisation and labour mobility. So technological and economic advances increase material wealth — but chip at social bonds. And the most irreducible such bond, the only one that really can’t be replaced by staff or robots, is the one between mother and child. 

You can hardly blame women for balking at a type of commitment that feels ever more like swimming against every economic and cultural current. More bluntly: high-tech capitalism (whether in its state-run or “free-market” variants) is inimical to babies, even as it relies on women continuing to produce and raise them. 

The liberal Western response to this tension hopes that individuals and families will find solutions. The top-down Chinese one deploys heavy-handed policy vehicles. Time will tell which approach is more effective. But if social fragmentation and economic competition keep incentivising hyper-individualism as the key to survival, this will exert ever greater downward pressure on women’s willingness to compromise their individual autonomy by having children. In turn, then, we may see fertility politics become increasingly salient, while mitigating policies could begin to tip beyond ‘nudge’ and towards coercion.

Join the discussion

  • Mary might have a somewhat rosy view of motherhood in the past as being primarily driven by child-mother bond. In fact, mothers often had very little say in any decisions regarding the number of pregnancies or their timing. Also, while the current systems in China and the West are equally inimical to babies, at least the individuals deciding to have one are not. Parents to be are mostly driven by a genuine desire to bring a new being into this world. This was rarely a case in the past: children were a resource to be exploited: a pair of working hands in the poorer sections of the society, and a bargaining chip to be used as convenient in the aristocracy. I can’t help thinking that contemporary attitudes towards child rearing are an improvement.
    As to the very real issues coming from a society committing itself to demographic oblivion, capitalism has a temporary solution. The same as manufacturing has been moved to cheaper countries, so will citizen production be outsourced. Mass immigration will sooner or later be tried in all societies facing low birth rates. It is still too early to tell whether this will solve the problem, but the results so far do not look promising.

  • Why not just let the populations of the west slowly decline, ecologically speaking it’s a good thing to do.
    Most of the damage to the natural world is due to the fast expanding populations of Africa and the Third world. They must be made to stay there and suffer the consequences of their unsustainable populations.
    Why not incentivise women to have children with income tax refunds when they have a child. It would benefit those that have the best jobs and careers the most, and these are exactly the women who find it hard to have children. They’re also the ones we need to have children. As at the moment, those funded by the state seem to be having the most kids.

  • That’s a really good point.

    Very few people seem to understand that pensions are paid for only in part by your contributions and make up the rest from the working population, after you retire. This is fine if the population or the economy are growing fast enough to cover this. If they’re not, then parents take on the costs of raising children but are forced to share the benefits with those who did not. (Before anyone says they paid for other people’s children’s education, unless you are a very high earner, you didn’t. We pretty much cover the cost in our life time ourselves)

    Of course this doesn’t mean people should be compelled to have children. Just that those who do, deserve better financial support from the rest of society.

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